Monday, September 14, 2009

Federal Pres Says Danes Receive 20% of Their Power Via Wind; New Study Tells Different

Something Rotten? Obama Says Danes Receive 20% of Their Power Via Wind; New Study Tells the Real Story
Danish experts visit Washington this week to explain to American audiences what’s really happening in Denmark
IER, Sep 15, 2009

WASHINGTON – President Obama has frequently cited Denmark as an example to be followed in the field of wind power generation, stating on several occasions that the Danes satisfy “20 percent of their electricity through wind power.” The findings of a new study released this week cast serious doubt on the accuracy of that statement. The report finds that in 2006 scarcely five percent of the nation’s electricity demand was met by wind. And over the past five years, the average is less than 10 percent — despite Denmark having ‘carpeted’ its land with the machines.
“As climate officials descend upon Copenhagen later this year to continue their work to engineer a world in which energy is rendered less reliable, less affordable and increasingly scarce, the eyes of the world will naturally fall upon the host country as well,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), which commissioned the report.

“In the case of Denmark,” added Pyle, “you have a nation of 5.4 million, occupying some of the most wind-intense real estate in the world, whose citizens are forced to pay the highest electricity rates in Europe — and it still doesn’t even come close to the 20 percent threshold envisioned by President Obama for the United States. This may indeed be the model for the future – but only if you believe that a combination of smoke, mirrors and prohibitively high utility rates are the key to our economic and environmental salvation.”

Prepared by the independent Danish think tank CEPOS and co-authored by economist Henrik Meyer and Hugh Sharman, a prominent Denmark-based international energy consultant, the report details the extent to which Denmark’s claim to wind superiority is essentially founded on a myth – the function of a complicated trading scheme in which the Danes off-load excess, value-subtracted wind generation to other nations for roughly free, asking only in return that these countries sell some of their baseload power back to Denmark on the frequent occasions in which the wind does not blow there

The upshot? The Danes retain the title of world’s most prolific wind producer, and President Obama cites their experience as a path to be followed. The cost? Danish ratepayers are forced to pay the highest utility rates in Europe. And the American people are led to believe that, though wind may only provide a little more than one percent of our electricity now, reaching a 20 percent platform – as the Danes have allegedly done – will come at no cost, with no jobs lost and no externalities to consider.

Speaking of jobs, the report also pulls back the curtain on the wind power industry’s near-complete dependence on taxpayer subsidies to support the fairly modest workforce it presently maintains. Just as in Spain, where per-job taxpayer subsidies for so-called “green jobs” exceeds $1,000,000 per worker in some cases, wind-related jobs in Denmark on average are subsidized at a rate of 175 to 250 percent above the average pay per worker. All told, each new wind job created by the government costs Danish taxpayers between 600,000-900,000 krone a year, roughly equivalent to $90,000-$140,000 USD.

“That the current political leadership in Washington is enamored of the European energy model has been made abundantly clear — from the president himself, all the way on down,” added Pyle. “Less clear is the extent to which these people actually know what’s taking place over there, and whether they’re willing to level with the American people about the serious costs associated with following this dubious path.”

On Tuesday, report co-author Hugh Sharman will join CEPOS chief executive officer Martin Agerup in Washington, D.C., part of a three-day tour (Tues-Thurs) aimed at explaining to a wider American audience the core conclusions of their report. Those interested in speaking with Messrs. Sharman and/or Agerup or setting up an interview should contact Patrick Creighton (202.621.2947) or Chris Tucker (202.346.8825).

Who's Too Big to Fail? - Regulators today won't define 'systemic risk,' unlike 25 years ago

Who's Too Big to Fail? WSJ Editorial
Regulators today won't define 'systemic risk,' unlike 25 years ago.
WSJ, Sep 14, 2009

With Congress back in session and the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure upon us, the Obama Administration is resuming its quest for greatly expanded authority to bail out American businesses. Under the Treasury reform blueprint, any financial company, whether a regulated bank or not, could be rescued or seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation if regulators believe it poses a systemic risk.

If recent history is any guide, when the feds stage their next intervention, they will not define "systemic risk" and they will refuse to release the data underlying their decision. To this day, taxpayers can only guess at the specific reasons behind the ad hoc rescues that began with Bear Stearns in March of 2008. Now Team Obama seeks to codify the bailout policies of the last 18 months.

Before receiving authority for new adventures across U.S. commerce, financial regulators should explain their current interventions. The basic questions: How exactly does the government measure systemic risk, and how do regulators know that the U.S. economy can't live without a particular firm? Americans still don't know why Bear, Citigroup and AIG were saved, but Lehman wasn't.

A recently-filed federal lawsuit seeks answers. Plaintiff Vern McKinley worked at the FDIC in the 1980s and is now suing his old employer, as well as the Federal Reserve. The two agencies have been stiff-arming his Freedom of Information Act requests on last year's bailouts.

Last December, Mr. McKinley sent a FOIA request to the Fed to find out what Fed governors meant when they said a Bear Stearns failure would cause a "contagion." This term was used in the publicly-released minutes of the Fed meeting at which the central bank discussed plans by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to finance Bear's sale to J.P. Morgan Chase. The minutes contained only the vague warning of doom, without any detail on how exactly the fall of Bear would destroy America. Mr. McKinley's request sought the supporting documents for this conclusion.

He also requested minutes of the autumn FDIC board meeting at which regulators approved financing for a Citigroup takeover of Wachovia. To provide this assistance, the board had to invoke the "systemic risk" exception in the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, and therefore had to assert that such assistance was necessary for the health of the financial system. Yet days later, Wachovia cut a better deal to sell itself to Wells Fargo, instead of Citi. So how necessary was the FDIC's offer of assistance?

After Mr. McKinley sued the agency this summer, the FDIC coughed up a previously undisclosed staff memo to the FDIC board. Again, the agency redacted the substance, providing roughly two pages of text from the nine-page original. The section of the memo titled "Systemic Risk" was entirely erased. As for the Fed, it blew off Mr. McKinely's initial request and has since responded mainly with some highly uninformative letters from the Fed staff to Congress.

For rescues of institutions deemed "too big to fail," this lack of disclosure is striking. Twenty-five years ago this month, Congress began hearings on Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, which had received a government rescue of creditors and uninsured depositors just four months earlier. Rather than vague warnings of "severe" consequences for "fragile" markets offered by Bush and Obama regulators, the public received detailed information on Continental Illinois and its relation to other institutions.

By early October, the alleged "systemic risk" was being defined—and debated—very precisely. The FDIC held that 179 smaller banks would have been at high risk of failure due to their Continental Illinois exposures if the bank had been allowed to collapse. Combing through the data, the staff of the House Banking Committee and the General Accounting Office countered that only 28 banks would have been at high risk.

In contrast, the counterparties that benefited from the AIG bailout last year were only formally disclosed in 2009 after months of public pressure and after the Journal's reporting had already revealed most of the details. A public debate on which banks really needed a bailout via the government's AIG conduit has hardly taken place. And did all of Bear Stearns' creditors, including hedge funds, need to be made whole to ensure the survival of American capitalism?

A year after the epic meltdown, this is the debate Congress needs to undertake before legislating any new federal authority. Regulators should not receive a blank check to prevent systemic risk without even defining what that term means.

Japan concerned at weakening of U.S. nuclear umbrella

Japan concerned at weakening of U.S. nuclear umbrella
Japan Today, Monday 14th September, 07:01 AM JST

TOKYO — Japan has expressed its reluctance to accept a proposal that urges the United States to limit the role of nuclear weapons to deterring only nuclear attacks and that seeks a no first-strike commitment in a draft report compiled by an international panel on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, panel sources said Sunday.

Japan’s representative to the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament expressed reservations about the proposal due to concerns over a weakening of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the sources said.

The commission, established at the initiative of Australia and Japan, aims to reinvigorate international efforts on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. It is co-chaired by former Japanese and Australian foreign ministers—Yoriko Kawaguchi and Gareth Evans.

The draft document envisages U.S. President Barack Obama working out a new nuclear doctrine before the review conference of parties to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty which is scheduled to be held next May.

It says that the ‘‘sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter use of nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies.’’

Japan has agreed to the principle of reducing the role of nuclear weapons but has expressed reservations not just about the specific proposal but also the suggested timetable and sequence or weapons reduction, the sources said.

Japan is arguing for Washington to maintain its broad nuclear deterrence apparently due to concerns about possible biological and chemical attacks from North Korea, they added.
An adviser to the Japanese commission member said, ‘‘From a Japanese defense perspective, there are two concerns under current security circumstances in East Asia for the time being,’’ according to the sources.

‘‘First, limiting the role of nuclear deterrence in preventing nuclear attack may give the wrong signal to North Korea or other ‘rogue states’ which may have a different strategic (escalation) calculation. To deter such threats, the credibility of nuclear deterrence would remain important.
‘‘Second, a no-first-use declaration by the United States without a reduction in threat would undermine the security of Japan, or at least it would raise the sense of uncertainty and anxiety over security.

‘‘In light of the reality that China has been rapidly catching up in air and sea power addition to the rapid modernization of its nuclear capability, no-first-use should be come after or along with the commitment of a tangible nuclear threat reduction in the region,’’ the report quoted the adviser as saying.

Fact-Checking the Federal President on Health Insurance

Fact-Checking the President on Health Insurance. By SCOTT HARRINGTON
His tales of abuse don't stand scrutiny
WSJ, Sep 14, 2009

In his speech to Congress last week, President Barack Obama attempted to sell a reform agenda by demonizing the private health-insurance industry, which many people love to hate. He opened the attack by asserting: "More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won't pay the full cost of care. It happens every day."

Clearly, this should never happen to anyone who is in good standing with his insurance company and has abided by the terms of the policy. But the president's examples of people "dropped" by their insurance companies involve the rescission of policies based on misrepresentation or concealment of information in applications for coverage. Private health insurance cannot function if people buy insurance only after they become seriously ill, or if they knowingly conceal health conditions that might affect their policy.

Traditional practice, governed by decades of common law, statute and regulation is for insurers to rely in underwriting and pricing on the truthfulness of the information provided by applicants about their health, without conducting a costly investigation of each applicant's health history. Instead, companies engage in a certain degree of ex post auditing—conducting more detailed and costly reviews of a subset of applications following policy issue—including when expensive treatment is sought soon after a policy is issued.

This practice offers substantial cost savings and lower premiums compared to trying to verify every application before issuing a policy, or simply paying all claims, regardless of the accuracy and completeness of the applicant's disclosure. Some states restrict insurer rescission rights to instances where the misrepresented or concealed information is directly related to the illness that produced the claim. Most states do not.

To highlight abusive practices, Mr. Obama referred to an Illinois man who "lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about." The president continued: "They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it."

Although the president has used this example previously, his conclusion is contradicted by the transcript of a June 16 hearing on industry practices before the Subcommittee of Oversight and Investigation of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The deceased's sister testified that the insurer reinstated her brother's coverage following intervention by the Illinois Attorney General's Office. She testified that her brother received a prescribed stem-cell transplant within the desired three- to four-week "window of opportunity" from "one of the most renowned doctors in the whole world on the specific routine," that the procedure "was extremely successful," and that "it extended his life nearly three and a half years."

The president's second example was a Texas woman "about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne." He said that "By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size."

The woman's testimony at the June 16 hearing confirms that her surgery was delayed several months. It also suggests that the dermatologist's chart may have described her skin condition as precancerous, that the insurer also took issue with an apparent failure to disclose an earlier problem with an irregular heartbeat, and that she knowingly underreported her weight on the application.

These two cases are presumably among the most egregious identified by Congressional staffers' analysis of 116,000 pages of documents from three large health insurers, which identified a total of about 20,000 rescissions from millions of policies issued by the insurers over a five-year period. Company representatives testified that less than one half of one percent of policies were rescinded (less than 0.1% for one of the companies).

If existing laws and litigation governing rescission are inadequate, there clearly are a variety of ways that the states or federal government could target abuses without adopting the president's agenda for federal control of health insurance, or the creation of a government health insurer.

Later in his speech, the president used Alabama to buttress his call for a government insurer to enhance competition in health insurance. He asserted that 90% of the Alabama health-insurance market is controlled by one insurer, and that high market concentration "makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly—by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates."

In fact, the Birmingham News reported immediately following the speech that the state's largest health insurer, the nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, has about a 75% market share. A representative of the company indicated that its "profit" averaged only 0.6% of premiums the past decade, and that its administrative expense ratio is 7% of premiums, the fourth lowest among 39 Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans nationwide.

Similarly, a Dec. 31, 2007, report by the Alabama Department of Insurance indicates that the insurer's ratio of medical-claim costs to premiums for the year was 92%, with an administrative expense ratio (including claims settlement expenses) of 7.5%. Its net income, including investment income, was equivalent to 2% of premiums in that year.

In addition to these consumer friendly numbers, a survey in Consumer Reports this month reported that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama ranked second nationally in customer satisfaction among 41 preferred provider organization health plans. The insurer's apparent efficiency may explain its dominance, as opposed to a lack of competition—especially since there are no obvious barriers to entry or expansion in Alabama faced by large national health insurers such as United Healthcare and Aetna.

Responsible reform requires careful analysis of the underlying causes of problems in health insurance and informed debate over the benefits and costs of targeted remedies. The president's continued demonization of private health insurance in pursuit of his broad agenda of government expansion is inconsistent with that objective.

Mr. Harrington is professor of health-care management and insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.